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date: 29 June 2022

Pastoralism in Eastern Africalocked

Pastoralism in Eastern Africalocked

  • John GalatyJohn GalatyDepartment of Anthropology, McGill University


The Rift Valley is a stage on which the history of Eastern Africa has unfolded over the last 10,000 years. It served as a corridor for the southward migration from the Upper Nile and the Ethiopian highlands of Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic speakers and cultures, with their domestic animals, which over time defined and restructured the social and cultural fabric of East Africa. Genetic evidence suggests that, contrary to other regions in Africa where geography overrides language, the clustering of East African populations primarily reflects linguistic affiliation. Eastern Sudanic Nilotic speakers are dedicated livestock keepers whose identification with cattle over thousands of years is manifested in elaborate symbolism, networks created by cattle exchange, and the practice of sacrifice. The geographical attributes of rich grasslands in a semi-arid environment, close proximity of lowland and highland grazing, and a bimodal rainfall regime, made the Rift Valley an ideal setting for increasingly specialized pastoralism. However, specialized animal husbandry characteristic of East Africa was possible only within a wider socioeconomic configuration that included hunters and bee-keeping foragers and cultivators occupying escarpments and highland areas. Some pastoral groups, like Maasai, Turkana, Borana, and Somali, spread widely across grazing areas, creating more culturally homogeneous regions, while others settled near one another in geographically variegated regions, as in the Omo Valley, the Lake Baringo basin, or the Tanzanian western highlands, creating social knots that signal historical interlaying and long-term mutual coexistence. At the advent of the colonial period, Oromo and Maasai speakers successfully exploited the ecological potential of the Rift environment by combining the art of raising animals with social systems built out of principles of clanship, age and generation organizations, and territorial sections. Faced with displacement by colonial settlers and then privatization of rangelands, some Maasai pastoralists sold lands that they had been allocated, leading to landlessness amid rangeland bounty. Pastoral futures involve a combination of education, religious conversion, and diversified rangeland livelihoods, which combine animal production with cultivation, business, wage labor, or conservation enterprises. Pastoralists provide urban markets with meat, but, with human population increasing, per capita livestock holdings have diminished, leading to rural poverty, as small towns absorbing young people departing pastoralism have become critical. The Great East African Rift Valley has had a 10,000-year history of developing pastoralism as one of the world’s great forms of food production, which spread throughout Eastern Africa. The dynamics of pastoral mobility and dedication to livestock have been challenged by modernity, which has undermined pastoral territoriality and culture while providing opportunities that pastoralists now seek as citizens of their nations and the world.


  • Cultural History
  • East Africa and Indian Ocean
  • Economic History

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